One Small Question About 'Exodus'
By LEE SIEGEL
AMID all the justified, and long overdue, concern about truth in memoir — and in nonfiction books generally — a peculiar condition of American literary culture has been overlooked: a radical mistrust of generalization reigns. This is especially the case at magazines and newspapers, wheresweeping statements, speculation and intuitive leaps have long been suppressed. And now, in the wake of the James Frey affair, Oprah Winfrey and others are calling for publishers to verify the factual accuracy of their books. Let us, then, put the question of written accuracy in perspective. Let us imagine for a moment what Western intellectual history would be like if the awesome figure of The Fact-Checker had stood astride culture from (almost) the beginning. . . .
First, congratulations from all of us here at The Jerusalemite on Saul of Tarsus' selection of "Genesis" for his book club. This is huge. We just have a few queries about "Exodus" before it goes to press:
p. 12: "and the waters were divided." Could we say: "apparently the sea was at very low tide that day"? Also, would Y-u please just take a look at Y--r notes again and make sure this really happened?
p. 23: " 'I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people." Our lawyers suggest these changes: "I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a highly sensitive, and at this particular moment, irritable people, which is understandable, what with the heat and all the walking." O.K. by Y-u?
Dear St. Luke,
Thank you so much for sending us this uplifting article. I hope you will forgive me — I mean, I know you will forgive me — if I question just one infinitesimal point.
In 12:15 you write: "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Are you aware of the recent University of Samaria study concluding that an abundance of possessions raises the serotonin level, extends the life span by 10 years, increases sexual potency and creates a sense of happiness and self-worth? We deeply respect your indifference to earthly life, but perhaps you would be compassionate enough to address these points? We're going to get a lot of epistles.
Dear Marcus Aurelius,
Mike from fact-checking here. Piece looks great, but we have a few questions.
p. 18: "No man can rob us of our free will." This is way too general. What if when I'm leaving work today someone smashes me over the head with a bottle, throws me in the trunk of his car, takes me home, ties me up and locks me in his closet? My will might be free, but what am I going to do with a free will if I'm stuck in somebody's closet? Are you really wedded to this one?
p. 19: "Think of the country mouse and of the town mouse, and of the alarm and trepidation of the town mouse." Everybody's pretty confused here, though I definitely get the idea. How about we lose the rodents and do something a little more straightforward. "Think of the country and of the town, and of the fact that with the money you pay for a tiny studio on the Upper West Side, you can buy a two-bedroom split-level in peaceful White Plains." Bingo?
Dear Authors of the Declaration of Independence,
Wow. I can't wait to see this one in print. Major question, though. Right at the beginning of the second paragraph, you write: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Whoa. Is there a professor somewhere who can back that up? A respected English philosopher you can quote? Your statement is much too categorical. For example, let me play a skeptical reader. I'm handsome, rich and intelligent. My impecunious neighbor is an incontinent moron with rotten teeth. Which of us deserves the most slaves? So could we rework, maybe thus: "In our opinion, which not every person shares, we think, but can't say for sure, that all men are created equal, more or less." Please make this change. Piece is in our "Best New England Inns" issue, which everyone reads.
Dear Professor Marx,
Enclosed please find the page proofs for "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." Many thanks for allowing us to change the title to "Autumn Leaves." Page numbers and queries follow.
p. 1: first and second sentences: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Not sure how a person can occur twice. And how can a fact be first "tragic" and then "farcical"? They assassinated Julius Caesar, which is tragic. Is it funny if they murder him again? Did Hegel really "forget" to add the thought about tragedy and farce? How do you know? How could he forget to add what seems to be your idea? If the thought had occurred to him, wouldn't he have "added" it? Or would he just have forgotten it? If the latter, doesn't it seem to you that he would have remembered it later? And what if a fact started off as farcical? Would it be farcical the second time around? Or would it be tragic, and then farcical again?
Dear Walter Pater,
May I say, on behalf of all of us here in the checking department, that the conclusion to your "Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry" surpasses even your thrilling previous contribution to these pages, "Great Marble Behinds." We have just one question:
p. 3: Speaking about the importance of experience and sensation to aesthetic receptivity, you write: "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." First off, you're not endorsing smoking, are you? Legal department says that's a big no-no. And can a flame be "hard"? Or do you mean to imply something else? If so, isn't it somewhat implausible to imagine a person walking around with a "hard flame" for his entire life? Maybe take out "always" and change to: "burn, from time to time, with this friendly, gemlike flame"?
Dear Edmund Wilson,
Duncan the fact-checker here again. Following are a couple of quick queries about your introductory essay to "Patriotic Gore."
p. 2: Discussing nations' expansionist ambitions, you write: "In a recent Walt Disney film showing life at the bottom of the sea, a primitive organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up smaller organisms. . . . Now, the wars fought by human beings are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug." Name of film? Do you mean the whale in "Pinocchio"? If not, name of slug? And who, exactly, gets "gobbled"? Unlucky Mr. Sea Horse, innocent Mr. Squid, etc.? N.b. we have no problem if it's a shellfish.
Lee Siegel is the author of "Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination," which will be published in the fall. A collection of his television criticism will appear next year.